Monday, 29 March 2010

Will South Africa go the Zimbabwe?

Almost every developing country in the world has been colonised and has gone through a freedom struggle. . The only exceptions I can think of are Afghanistan, Thailand, Iran and Bhutan in Asia and none at all in Africa or South America. South Africa is a bit different though. In South Africa, the Boers who came to hold power and who instituted apartheid which put the black population at a substantial disadvantage had to struggle against the British for their rights. Also, the Boers, when in power, were so much removed from the Dutch and not controlled by any western country. For this reason, South Africa’s colonisation is unique.

Though it was the Portuguese who successfully navigated around the Cape, it was the Dutch East India Company which in 1652 set up a trading garrison at Table Cape. Soon an assortment of Northern Europeans (mainly Dutch, but also Huguenots from France, Germans and some Scandinavians) who came to be called Boers formed farming settlements around Cape Colony. In the early 19th century, the British took over control of the Cape from the Dutch. The Boers didn’t particularly like the British and Boer settlements slowly expanded northwards from the Cape (mainly to get away from the British). Chaka, the head of a small Zulu clan, was at this time unifying the Zulu nation. Soon the expanding Boer settlements collided with the Zulu kingdom After Great King Chaka’s death, the Boers and the Zulus clashed frequently. The Boers didn’t always win. The Boers did not get on well with the British and they established various Boer republics such as Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British started to set up large sugar plantations in the Natal region. The Zulus were unwilling to work as labourers and so the British started to import indentured labourers from India. The Zulus did not make it easy for the British to expand their territory and there were a number of clashes. In the Battle of Isandlwana over 1400 British soldiers were killed.

Diamonds were discovered between 1866 and 1871 at a place called Kimberely and all the Free Boer States laid claim to this area. Thousands of entrepreneur miners poured in. The clever British quickly took over the Free Boer States. This led to a lot of resentment against the British which led to the First Boer War in which the Boers defeated the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881. The Boers set up the South African Republic, whilst the British controlled Zululand.

Later gold was discovered at a place called Witwatersrand and many more thousands of miners, of all colours, poured into the South African Republic. The newcomers did not have voting rights. When the British pressed for this right for the newly arrived Whites, the South African Republic refused and this led to the Second Boer War. This time the British were a lot more prepared and they won the war after a year. Disgruntled Boers continued to fight using guerrilla tactics for another two years. In retaliation, the British resorted to scorched earth tactics and interned thousands of Boers in concentration camps. Over 26,000 of them died in those camps.

In 1909, the British merged the Boer states and the British colonies into a Union of South Africa. Akrikaners were given Home Rule and placed on par with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Soon the South African parliament passed a number of laws which laid the foundation for Apartheid.

When the First World War started, the Boer-led government of South Africa sided with the Allied powers, though some Boers objected, memories of the concentration camps still fresh in some minds. When the Second World War started, Barry Hertzog, a pro-Nazi, Anti-British politician was the South African Prime Minister at the head of a coalition government. Hertzog was deposed and the pro-British Jan Smuts took over. In 1960, South Africa held a referendum and decided to become a Republic, severing all ties to the British crown.

The African National Congress (ANC) spearheaded the freedom struggle against Apartheid until free elections were held on 27 April 1994. Four years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. Nelson Mandela was a good President. Though he had been imprisoned for two and a half decades, he did his best for national reconciliation. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established which has done a good job in investigating human rights abuses and granting amnesty for politically motivated offences. The armed wing of the ANC and the Azanian People's Liberation Army were integrated into the South African National Defence Forces. On the flip side, the inevitable brain drain started, prompted as much by the high crime rate and better salaries overseas as much as the change in regime. Also, Nelson Mandela’s government didn’t give much importance to the fight against AIDS, though after stepping down as President, he has spoken in support of those trying to prevent its spread.

Then in June 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down and Thabo Mbeki came to power. A Xhosa like Nelson Mandela, Mbeki was also a member of the ANC and a freedom fighter. During Mbeki’s tenure as President, one which lasted almost ten years, he did a good job with the economy. In fact one of the reasons he succeeded Mandela was because he managed to convince white business leaders that it would be business as usual if he were in power. However, Mbeki achieved notoriety for denying a link between HIV and AIDS and blocking the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in public hospitals, an action which cost many thousands of lives. Mbeki also earned disrepute for not using South Africa’s influence over Zimbabwe at a time when human rights abuses by Mugabe were at their zenith. The brain drain increased in outflow.

Mbeki was not allowed to complete his second term. Convinced that Mbeki was behind a series of corruption charges levelled against the popular vice-president Jacob Zuma, the ANC leadership recalled him from the Presidency and Jacob Zuma came to power. South Africa got a President who had faced not just corruption charges in the past, but also that of rape. A polygamist with five wives and twenty children, Zuma like to flaunt his Zulu culture and more importantly use it to justify his actions. I have in the past written an article wondering why polygamy shouldn’t be legalised. If two consenting adults can do whatever they like, three or more should be able to do the same, I had reasoned. However, I don’t think it is a good idea for a President to resort to polygamy, especially when it is not the law of the land (yet).

Jacob Zuma is an ANC veteran, just like Mandela and Mbeki. Unlike Mbeki, he has spent many years in jail. Unlike Mandela and Mbeki, Zuma is advocating a return to Zulu values and practice of polygamy is just one of them. And when it comes to the fight against AIDS, he is no better than Mbeki. In 2005, when he was accused of raping a woman who was HIV positive, Zuma said that he had taken a shower to reduce the risk of infection. After Jacob Zuma came to power, attacks on White farmers have increased in frequency. Julius Malema, currently head of the ANC’s youth league and a possible heir to Zuma is said to be behind these attacks. As more and more White South Africans flee from a country where they are made to feel unwelcome, the infrastructure deteriorates further.

It is easy to understand why some freedom fighters, once they are in power, insist on rejecting all the values and principles of the colonising power they fought against. Unsurprisingly, the ones who do not resort to blind opposition to Westerners and Western values do much better than the ones who do. Singapore is the best example of a colonised country turning into a developed country by accepting and adopting practically western business practices with a good dose of Confucian ethics. Within Africa, the ones that are relatively prosperous like Kenya, did not chase away its business elites after gaining independence.

In an ideal world, a newly independent country will have easy access to the best technology on offer. The departing colonial power will arrange for an easy transition of power. Those with know-how will stay on to train the newly liberated and leave in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, it is not an orderly world and unless newly independent states go out of their way to assure the leaders of its economy of safety and freedom to do business, they will leave very quickly.

The best (or rather worst) example of a fertile land going to the dogs after independence is Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe got its independence through military action by the Zimbabwe African National Union headed by Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union headed by Joshua Nkomo. After independence, elections were held and Mugabe’s ZANU came to power. However, Mugabe who was a respected freedom fighter till then, has been at the delivering end of human rights abuses ever since. His troops have massacred Matabeles (a tribe rival to Mugabe’s Shona tribe). Land has been forcibly confiscated from White landowners for distribution to ZANU supporters. Mugabe claims that Zimbabwe’s White population which forms 1% of the total population controls over 70% of the land. It can’t be denied that the Whites in Zimbabwe own a large chunk of the land. However, arbitrary confiscation of land is not the way to run a country. Just as in the case of South Africa, the White landowners of Zimbabwe are people who have lived in Zimbabwe for generations and it is not really fair to ask them to pack up and leave as if they have houses and families tucked away in the UK or in the Netherlands. If Mugabe only wanted a fair redistribution of wealth, he ought to have set transparent parameters for taking over excess land from all landowners and distributing such land to the landless. Instead, one sees ZANU storm troopers attacking White owned farms and intimidating farmers and occasionally murdering them.

When the Soviet Union came into being, landlords were disposed of their lands enmasse and capitalists lost all their wealth. As a result, the Soviet Union suffered massive losses in agricultural production and industrial output. However, through its massive collectivisation programmes, the communists managed to catch up to some extent. They also managed to distribute the nation’s wealth relatively evenly. China did the same, though one shouldn’t forget that both countries unleashed suffering on a massive scale. Millions of peasants died before the benefits could be seen. North Korea on the other hand tried to do the same, but failed. It now survives solely on the basis of handouts from China. Is Mugabe planning something on these lines?

In this day and age, Mugabe is bound to fail if he continues with his attempts to disenfranchise the Whites and force them to give up their land. For one, the departing landlords and industrialists will not bother to stay back and train the native blacks in running a farm or a factory before they leave. Secondly, Mugabe has shown a terrific incapacity to be fair even with black people. Even if land is forcibly acquired, it will be given only to supporters of Mugabe. Finally, as in the case of South Africa, the Whites in Zimbabwe have lived there for many generations and are practically as much native with as much rights over the land as the blacks. Mugabe has shown no signs of wanting to change.

Zuma has a choice. He can either stop being a freedom fighter (now that he is in power) and focus on running the country, rather than belittling all western values, or he can imitate Robert Mugabe and let his country go to the dogs. Currently South Africa is still the most powerful country in Africa with world class infrastructure. It remains to be seen how long it will last.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Is The Tide Turning For Obama?

This week the US Senate and the House of Representatives voted to narrowly pass Obama’s healthcare reform bill without any Republican backing. The bill that finally became law is a far cry from what was originally proposed by Obama, but it is nevertheless a great victory for the man who talked of change and (the audacity of) hope. In the United States, a large percentage of the Republican Party’s supporters are poor people whose interests are not addressed by the Republican Party. By appealing to a mixture of emotions such as homophobia, the spectre of communism etc., the right to carry firearms etc., the Republican Party maintains its grip over its power base. If as a result of this new reform, many millions of poor Americans get better healthcare, will they defect to Obama’s side for the next elections? They just might.

They say that good news comes in threes. Here’s the second good piece of news for Obama. In Iraq, secular challenger Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition has won the most seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections, 2 seats more than incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition of Shia parties. Until now, it appeared as if the US invasion of Iraq had the effect of turning Iraq into a Shia state and an Iranian ally (if not a stooge). Now it seems that there is still hope. Under Saddam Iraq used to be a modern and relatively secular state, though it was under the control of the minority Sunnis and Shias were underprivileged. If the US could hand-over power to a relatively secular Iraqi government, the Iraq invasion will not be classified as an act of lunacy by future generations.

The third piece of good news for Obama is that he has managed to strike a peace deal with Russia for dismantling the nuclear arsenals of each country. There was a time not too long ago (till 1989) when the threat of an annihilating nuclear war hung in the air and peace negotiations between the US and the USSR took priority over everything else. Now a peace treaty between the US and Russia cannot hog the limelight, but it is nevertheless important and is yet another feather in Obama’s cap.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Iran and the Taliban: An Enemy’s Enemy is a Friend

That Shia Iran will never support Sunni fundamentalists has been an unquestioned truism until recently. After all, Sunni fundamentalists hate the Shias whom they consider as heretic as the kaffirs. Therefore, even when Iran was bracketed in the Axis of Evil, no one felt it necessary to examine if Iran was arming Sunni fundamentalists. It was during Israel’s invasion of the Gaza strip in January 2009 that the possibility of Iran arming and training (Sunni) Hamas was raised for the first time.

Now, this CNN report says that U.S. military and intelligence officials have confirmed Iran is helping the Taliban. Apparently limited training is being provided by Iran to the Taliban who travel to Iran for that purpose. My mind boggles – Sunni fanatics travelling to heretic Iran to learn from them. And why wouldn’t they? Pakistan is no longer to help the Taliban and so they go to the only big guy in the neighbourhood who will help them. After all, Iranian trained Hezbollah were able to force Israel to vacate southern Lebanon in 2000. Six years later the Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill when Israel invaded southern Lebanon.

Iran many not like the Hamas or the Taliban, but neither of them poses an existential threat to Iran. The US does, especially if Iran were to pursue its nuclear ambitions. Even though Iran faces a minor Sunni insurgency within its borders in the form of the Jundullah, it is definitely gambling that the risk involved in providing training and technology to the Taliban is worth taking if it forces the US to leave Afghanistan. The CNN report quotes a former CIA officer who did a strategic review of Afghanistan for the Obama administration last year who said the Iranians have mastered improvised explosive devices -- makeshift bombs hidden along roads and in ditches.

"They've been doing this in Lebanon, Iraq, and other places for decades," said Bruce Reidel, now a senior fellow at the Saban Institute for Middle East Policy. "They're among the best in the world in this kind of knowledge. And they're trying to transmit some of that knowledge over to the Afghan Taliban."

India definitely has reason to be worried. Technology that is available to the Taliban is very likely to be made available to militants in Kashmir. India has reasonably good relations with Shia Iran. It’s time for India to lean on its Persian friend a bit and ask Iran to see sense.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Goodbye Coke; Kerala Will Remain Clean, Green and Industrially Backward

I call myself a Malayalee though except for brief vacations I have never lived in Kerala. Every time I take a vacation in Kerala, travelling there from Tamil Nadu or Bangalore or Mumbai and for the last seven years, the UK, I’ve been struck by how clean and green Kerala is, relatively speaking. Fishes still swim in its rivers and so can human beings. The cleanliness and greenery come at a price. Kerala is industrially backward in a manner which is inexplicable. Here you have the most literate state in India, with social indices not much different from a developed country - low child mortality, a gender ratio in favour of women and decent healthcare. Yet, most Keralites are forced to migrate to places outside Kerala (as my parents did) in search of employment and livelihood. The reason for this is very simple. As the first region in the world to democratically elect a communist government to power and with a highly organised labour force, Kerala has scared big businesses away. Even Keralite-owned businesses like MRF would rather have their HQ in neighbouring Tamil Nadu than in Kerala. The unions keep the industries away and the absence of factories keeps Kerala clean and green. A wonderful place for a vacation, but a horrible place to run a business. Also, Kerala has one of the highest suicide rates in India.

The recent ruling against Coca Cola by a government panel is a case in point. In 1999, Coke was allowed to set up a bottling plant in Kerala at a place called Plachimada. According to this report, “within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, and the water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes, a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families were directly affected, and well water was tainted a considerable distance from the plant.

To top it all, Coke gave away the sludge from the plant free of cost to the villagers, to be used as fertiliser. BBC Radio 4 had the sludge analysed at Exeter University. It was found that the sludge contained very high levels of lead and cadmium.

In 2003, Coke was ordered to pack up and leave. Coke strenuously denied the charges though it was pretty obvious that they were well-founded. In August 2005, the plant was finally closed by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. And now, a fine of Rs 216 crore (about US$ 47 million) has been levied by a nine member panel composed of civil servants. Coke is bound to appeal to the courts against the fine. Will India’s courts uphold the order passed against Coke? India’s judiciary is not known for awarding large compensation packages. A fine of US$ 47 million is very high by Indian standards. To give an example, in the Bhopal Gas Leak case, the final settlement (made in 1999) came to US$ 470 million or 2,317 crores. And that was a case where thousands of people died and thousands were maimed for life.

India has some of the most highly polluted towns, cities and villages in the world. If Coke had set up its bottling plant anywhere else in India, it would in all probability have gotten away with the pollution. I am proud of Kerala and the people of Plachimada for having stood up for their rights. I also realise that because of this ruling, businesses will think twice before setting up factories in Kerala. Why set up camp in a state with not just lethal unions, but also a propensity to enforce anti-pollution laws? Kerala will remain clean, green and beautiful. I guess I ought to be happy!

I am a contributor to ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ an anthology of short stories and articles about Kerala published by Rupa Publications. Do read it and let me know what you think.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Was Mullah Baradar’s arrest a punishment for talking peace?

Just over a month ago, on February 8, 2010 to be precise, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, described as the top Afghan Taliban military commander was arrested in Karachi. The arrest was the result of a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence services and was touted as a turning point in the fight against the Taliban, something whose “capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations”.

Now after a month, one hears different versions of this arrest. Apparently, Mullah Baradar was arrested after he was effectively expelled from the Taliban’s top leadership, which has now been taken over by even more radical individuals. This reuters report quotes U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal to say that rather than a sign of the ISI’s increased willingness to help the CIA fight the Taliban, Baradar’s arrest may have been the result of an internal feud and purge among Taliban leaders.

On a different note, Kai Eide, the outgoing United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has said that he was engaged in peace talks with Mullah Baradar and other Taliban leaders. Baradar was a member of President Hamid Karzai's Popalzai tribe, one of the numerous Pashtun tribes, a man who could have been co-opted into Karzai’s government and the Afghan political process. According to Eide, Baradar’s arrest has sabotaged the ongoing talks.

Kai Aage Eide has been a member of the Norwegian Foreign Service since 1975. In March 2008, he was appointed the United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan and Head of the UNAMA. One of the chief roles played by Eide in Afghanistan was to oversee the 2009 Afghan elections which was won by Hamid Karzai despite allegations of massive fraud. Eide’s subordinate, U.N. deputy special representative in Afghanistan Peter Galbraith openly accused Eide of helping cover up electoral fraud and being biased in favour of Hamid Karzai. Shortly after making such accusations, Galbraith was fired by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Eide has now stepped down from his role as Head of UNAMA.

It cannot be denied that Hamid Karzai was re-elected to Afghan Presidency as a result of massive fraud to which the UN turned a blind eye. Why did Eide and the UN do that? Because Karzai, though corrupt and ineffective, is a ‘devil’ they know and understand. Because they do not have the guts to replace him with an unknown devil. It is not the first time the UN or the US have turned a blind eye to the activities of the Taliban or the ISI. The US has historically turned a blind eye to the arming of Kashmiri militants by the ISI. It was only after the militants fighting in Kashmir like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the Jaish e Mohammed started fighting the US army in Afghanistan and the Pak army in Pakistan’s North West that the US found it fit to cry halt. Currently US troops in the restive province of Marjah which recently saw some fierce fighting are ignoring the opium harvest being brought in by farmers, even though some of the proceeds of the harvest may go to fund the Taliban.

How serious were the talks which Eide had with the Taliban? According to Eide, Baradar had Mullah Omar’s blessings. However, Eide’s former subordinate Peter Galbraith says that it is an exaggeration to say that such talks were extensive.
Of late, the war against the Pakistani Taliban has been progressing rather well. However, the war in Afghanistan is not going anywhere. The Afghan National Army is unable to even shoot straight, let alone relieve the coalition forces. It has always been known that the ISI wanted to rid Pakistan of the Taliban while keep them alive in Afghanistan. It is very much possible that the ISI helped the CIA arrest Mullah Baradar because he had fallen afoul of the Taliban leadership or because he was leading peace talks which the ISI did not like.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Evangelical Atheism?

A week ago, the The 2010 Global Atheist Convention took place in Melbourne. Famous atheist’ intellectuals and writers like Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling attended and spoke. Billed as the largest gathering of atheists in the world, it heralded the rise of atheism in the 21st century. Indeed, it can be safely said that the number of atheists in the world is growing though the percentages are higher in the developed world, forcing one to draw the conclusion that atheism and a decline in religiosity are linked to material well-being. For example, in Australia, 19% of the people said they had "no religion" in a 2006 census.

Atheism is such a growing force that atheists are now being accused of atheist fundamentalism and evangelical atheism. How true are these charges? Are atheists now proselytizing on the lines of organized religions, shoving their non-belief down sensitive throats of believers? I don’t know. Guess how many people attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne last week? 2,500. That’s right. Just 2,500. And that was the largest gathering of atheists in the world! Heck, I know of small town congregations of believers (Hindus, Christians and Muslims) which gather more people than that.

Why is it that atheists are almost never evangelical? Why don’t they go around trying to convert people to their faith (or lack of it)? Atheism must be distinguished from agnosticism. The former denotes certainty that there is no God while the latter is an uncaring attitude towards God and religion. Agnostics by the very nature of their I-don’t-care-if God-exists attitude, cannot be expected to be particularly interested in spreading their dogma. However, atheists passionately believe that there is no God and that religion, organised religion, is the root cause of most evil. Why aren’t atheists ardently promoting atheism in the same manner as the religious? Surely the Global Atheism Convention ought to have attracted more than 2,500 people! Just to put things in context, every year around 7,000 people pack into St Peter's Basilica in Rome for the Christmas Eve mass. Around 2 million people travel to Mecca during every Hajj season. In 2001, around 60 million attended the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad (also called Prayag), making it the largest religious gathering in the world. In 2007, 18 million gathered in Allahabad for yet another Kumbh Mela. A couple of months ago in January 2010, there was a Kumbh Mela at Haridwar and this CNN report erroneously says that another 60 million was expected. In reality around 5.5 million people attended it. It just can’t be denied that, especially in the developing world, the believers outnumber the atheists by many times.

I once blogged about how religious people are usually much more charitable than atheists. It is not only in charity that the believers outdo the atheists. Even when it comes to propagation of belief, atheists come a very distant second. A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting of atheists in London one Saturday afternoon when I had absolutely nothing else to do. Around 20 of us sat in a conference room and discussed atheism. At that point in time, I was genuinely feeling atheist (my feelings frequently range from atheism to agnosticism to mild belief in God). One by one, we talked about how we came to be atheists and what ought to be done to spread atheism. This was a regular gathering of atheists and many of them knew each other. Some like me, where attending for the first time. One of the organizers explained how we could spread the non-faith by distributing pamphlets and talking to other people, in a manner not much different from religious missionaries. After an hour, I had had enough. I was bored. Period. Thirty minutes later, there was a coffee break and I just walked out. I didn’t disagree with a word of what was being said in that room. I was just bored. I won’t deny that I would like a larger component of the world’s population to be atheists or agnostics. I do believe that religion is the root cause of much evil. However, I didn’t and even now can’t bring myself to propagate atheism.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Indians and the NHS

There are various categories of Indians living in the UK. Many came to the UK from the 1950s onwards to work in the numerous factories that proliferated in the Midlands, migrating mainly from Punjab. There are those who came from East Africa in the 1970s, forced to leave behind most of what they owned, by politicians like Idi Amin. And then there are professionals like doctors, engineers and bankers who came to the UK for career enhancement and because they got to make more money than they would back home. Educated in some of the finest schools and colleges in India with toppings from UK institutions in many cases, these professionals have very strong ties to India and some of them will eventually go back for good, once the CV has been updated and the bank balance hits a certain ceiling. Most of the Indians I am in touch with in the UK belong to this category.

If there is one thing that unites Professional Indians of the type described above, it is the ‘NHS’. Ask any of them what they think of the NHS and without a moment’s hesitation, you will get the reply. ‘Horrible’. ‘Nightmare’. ‘Terrible’. The adjectives may vary, but they all convey a sense of horror which is interesting enough to analyse.

India is a country where a big chunk of the population goes without medical facilities. However, most middle-class Indians however have access to private health care. Though the quality of the private health care itself is debatable, it is delivered by an abundance of doctors, some of whom make good money, supported by an equal number of nurses who are almost uniformly worked very hard and badly paid. What every middle-class Indian takes for granted is the ability to be able to see a doctor of his or her choice at less than twenty four hours’ notice. As mentioned earlier, the quality of the private care is not necessarily very high. It is very common for GPs in private practice to buy antibiotics by the carton (literally) and sell them (as part of the treatment) to their patients by the bottle. Antibiotics are also available over the counter in India. As a result, most Indians are so used to taking antibiotics at the drop of a hat and do not respond to less harsh forms of treatments.

The National Health Service or the NHS, as it is commonly called, is the exact opposite of the Indian medical system. The NHS prides itself on offering the same medical care to everyone, irrespective of their status in society. Anyone can walk into the A&E section of an NHS hospital and receive medical care, even illegal immigrants, though these days registration with a GP is restricted to those legally in the UK. Even the family members of a doctor working for the NHS will have to book an appointment or stand in a queue to see a doctor chosen either by a receptionist or an administrator. It may be necessary for wait for a few weeks to have an operation to fix a broken arm. Serious surgeries require a longer waiting period. Antibiotics are rarely prescribed. Pharmacies will definitely not sell antibiotics over the counter. Women delivering babies are encouraged to deliver naturally with assistance from a mid-wife rather than a doctor.

In India, a middle-class woman in labour will have a doctor and a few nurses at her beck and call. Even if it is not really needed, a caesarean section will be performed since the doctors get paid more for C-sections than in the case of a natural delivery. As a result, very few middle-class Indian women actually get to deliver naturally. The World Health Organisation says that the Caesarean rate should not exceed more than about one in eight births. The UK rate is double this number and I am sure (from anecdotal evidence) that this rate is much higher among middle-class and rich Indians, though no official statistics exist. For course, there are those who dispute the WHO’s advice.

On the whole, I think the NHS is a fairer system, though most of my Indian friends in the UK will disagree. NHS treatments are almost entirely free and are paid for by the government using the tax payers’ money. It hardly needs reminding that income tax rates in the UK are much higher than in India, even though the rate of corruption in the UK is a lot less and most of the tax payer’s money does reach its destination. Again, unlike in India.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Obama Must Read the Riot Act to Israel Now!

After Obama’s Cairo speech last June, I had blogged that if Obama were a doer and not just a talker, he would do some serious arm twisting to force Israel to give up the occupied territories. And just before Obama took over the Presidency in January 2009, I had blogged as follows:

Obama realises that the Palestinian dispute is poisoning the West's relations with the Islamic world at a global level. However, I doubt if he will be able to solve this since it would require a tremendous amount of pressure to be exerted on Israel, including the actual withholding of US aid, in order to force Israel to give up all control over not only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also over East Jerusalem, a pre-requisite for creating a viable Arab Palestinian State. The American public is still very much pro-Israel and politician that Obama is, he will not be able to exert the necessary pressure on Israel.

Unfortunately, recent events seem to be proving my predictions right. A week ago U.S. Vice President Jose Biden was in Israel, trying to do the usual stuff that western politicians do in Israel: to reignite the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. While he was at it, an Israeli government department (which is part of the interior ministry) announced its approval for building 1,600 new homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in disputed East Jerusalem. Instead of throwing a tantrum and flying home on Air Force One immediately (as respected NY Times journalist Tom Friedman says he should have done), Joe Biden threw a tantrum and continued with this trip. Obama is yet to read the riot act to Israel, not an easy job since most Americans, especially the evangelicals, still support Israel. Hilary Clinton has accused Israel of ‘insulting’ Joe Biden. I found Clinton’s position curious. The insult from Israel was not to Joe Biden, but to the United States as a whole. If it were not for US support, the Israeli state would have folded up ages ago.

It is time for Obama to read Israel the riot act. However, I doubt he will.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

After the Violence, Referendums Galore!

Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in various parts of Europe and North America having been holding referendums to decide if there is to be an independent Eelam or not. There have been referendums in Canada, Denmark, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany etc. For an outsider, these referendums look hilarious. Not only are they not backed or endorsed by any government, let alone the Sri Lankan government, those taking part in the referendum are people who have left Sri Lanka and are unlikely to ever return. I wonder how many individuals would have taken part in these referendums if there was the slightest possibility that an overwhelming vote in favour would have created an independent Tamil Eelam and forced all those who voted in favour to go and live there.

In the meantime, the Tamil National Alliance of Sri Lanka, a party that was at one point considered the political wing of the LTTE, has dropped its demand for an independent Tamil state. Even now the TNA is the largest Tamil party in Sri Lanka. Rather than independence, the TNA says it will seek a federal setup for Sri Lanka with ‘significant’ devolution of powers. The TNA also wants a merger of the two Tamil-majority provinces, the northern and eastern provinces. I definitely support the first demand. I am not sure if I agree with the second one. Ever since Karuna revolted, it is not possible to say that the Tamils of Eastern Sri Lanka will be happy to throw in their lot with the Northern Tamils.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A Good Fatwa. Or Is It?

Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, an Islamic scholar from Pakistan, has issued a 600-page fatwa which denounces terrorism and suicide bombings. As may only be expected, Dr. Qadri’s fatwa has received a lot of praise. Fantastic! That was my initial reaction too, until I started thinking. If Dr Tahir ul-Qadri’s fatwas are eulogised, then we are in a way legitimising fatwas and giving them a place in the public sphere. So there can be good fatwas and bad fatwas. Great! Who decides which fatwas are good and which are bad?

Considering the mess the fight against Islamic fundamentalism currently is in, Dr. Qadri’s fatwa is not a bad thing. However, fatwas, even good ones, cannot be a long term solution for the global fight against Islamic fundamentalism.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Book Review: Salil Tripathi’s “Offence: The Hindu Case”

They say good things come in small packages. They also say that it is easy to write an elaborate and lengthy book, but a lot tougher to compress one’s thoughts into a brief and succinct article. Both these are true in the case of well-known and well-regarded journalist Salil Tripathi who has now come up with a neat book which traces the growth of intolerance among Hindu fundamentalists in India. Before you wonder if there isn’t any fundamentalism among Muslims, Christians, Jews etc., let me tell you that this book is part of a series by the publisher, Kolkata based Seagull Books, which has books by different authors make the case for offence taken by Jews, Muslim and Christians.

Tripathi not only writes well, as we all know, but he has also done his research thoroughly. Compressed within the hundred odd half-pages that make this book, you will find titbits of history (lavishly drenched in a fair sauce) on topics such as the Aryan Invasion Theory, destruction of temples by native Indian rulers and Muslim invaders, the various versions of Ramayana, eroticism in temple art etc. I finished the book effortlessly in one sitting and really enjoyed reading it. More power to Tripathi’s pen (or rather his keyboard!)

If at all I have a grudge, it is against the publisher Seagull Books, who in my view, could have brought out a single book with all four components, the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish cases for offence.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Al-Mabhouh’s Assassination In Dubai – Finally An Explanation

I had blogged a week ago about the alleged murder of Hamas commander Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in his room at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai on January 19 2010 by Mossad agents. I had wondered why ‘infallible’ Mossad had allowed so many of its agents to take part in this operation, leaving their footprints (and pictures) all over the place. A recent Newsweek article suggests a possible answer. Apparently Mossad tried to make it look as if Al-Mabhoub died of natural causes. May be Mossad was so confident that no one would suspect murder that they didn’t worry about the security camera recordings. However, according to Newsweek Mossad’s assassins made their handiwork too perfect and ….. the rest is history.

This story just goes to show how quickly the IQ gap (or cleverness or smartness gap – call it what you will) between the Israelis and their Arab opponents is narrowing. In any event, the smartest military leader in the middle-east currently is the Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah.

Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

This collection of inter-linked stories was released over a year ago, but I managed to get hold of it only recently. Which is such a pity because I don’t think I have read a better bunch of stories by any other South Asian writer with the exception of R. K. Narayan.

The first story in this collection, Nawabdin Electrician, was published by The New Yorker in August 2007. I still remember being struck dumb by the mastery exhibited by the then unknown Mueenuddin, the sheer depth of the protagonist’s character and the flawless depiction of a feudal village setting in Southern Pakistan. The rest of the stories in this collection are of equal merit, though, for me, Nawabdin Electrician is the best of the lot. Two more stories from this collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and A Spoiled Man subsequently appeared in the New Yorker

All the characters in this collection not only run true to form, but also go beyond that. The feudal landlords are not only feudal, but also absentee landlords who rely excessively on managers to run their farms and collect the rents, not much unlike the landlords in Tolstoy and Chekov. In fact, the feudal set up reminded me a lot of descriptions of the Russian rural scene from Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and even Sholokhov. The landlord’s children are educated in the best schools and study overseas. One of them has an American wife. The lawyers and magistrates are corrupt. The big men sleep around and drink expensive foreign liquor smuggled on boats from Dubai to Karachi. The poor relatives sponge off the rich ones, to the extent their blood links will allow them to. A poor woman, especially one married to a drug addict, has to be ruthless in choosing the man she will sleep with, if she is to survive.

One of Mueenuddin’s key strengths is to flip a character to show his or her underbelly. A posh couple find each other, fall in love, have a dream wedding and slowly drift apart. The wife is unhappy and she invites a bunch of people to their farm for a party. The husband isn’t happy and he ignores the guests. The wife sleeps with one of the guests and starts feeling guilty very soon after.

The poor characters in Mueenuddin’s stories impressed me much more than the rich ones. The poor are as cruel as the rich ones, though they are cruel only to the extent they need to, in order to survive. In any event, they are not as cruel as the policemen who torture a poor man, knowing him to be innocent, whose mentally wife challenged wife has been lost, probably abducted by traffickers. For example, in Nawabdin Electrician, Nawabdin stops his motorcycle on a desolate stretch of a village road to give someone a lift. It turns out to be a robber with a gun who shoots Nawabdin in the tummy and takes the bike. The robber, who is even more poor than Nawabdin, doesn’t know how to ride the bike and he crashes it soon after. Nawabdin follows the robber and tries to take back his bike. The robber shoots Nawabdin a few more times. ‘The man had never used weapons, had fired this unlicensed revolver only one time, to try it out when he bought it from a bootlegger. He couldn’t bear to point at the torso or the head, but shot at the groin and the legs.’ Interestingly Nawabdin survives, but the robber doesn’t. Do read this story to find out how and why.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Is Israel losing the plot?

Hamas commander Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh was allegedly murdered in his room at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai on January 19 2010 by Mossad agents. There are varying reports of the number of agents involved, possibly around thirty, but there is little dispute that a large number were involved since these agents were caught on security cameras following Al-Mabhouh around the hotel, with and without disguises. Even more embarrassing for Israel is that its agents used foreign passports of Israeli citizens who have dual nationality. This has given rise to a diplomatic furore which has countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia etc. demanding an explanation from Israel.

Israel has a history of carrying out such covert killings and Al-Mabhouh would in (Israeli eyes) have made a justified target since he was allegedly the mastermind of the capture and killing of two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Saadon, in 1989. However, allowing twenty odd agents to be seen on security cameras isn’t really covert. It almost seems to be an attempt to draw attention to itself. Is it possible that Mossad intentionally allowed its agents to be seen on camera, in order to send a message to Hamas? Very unlikely, since this operation has blown the cover of so many operatives. The only plausible answer seems to be that Mossad carried out this operation in Dubai as it would have done in say Beirut or Amman. But Dubai just isn’t Beirut. It is cosmopolitan and it is easy for foreigners to blend in, but it is a developed country crisscrossed with security cameras. Heck, it is practically impossible to over-speed in Dubai without being caught on camera. In July 2008, famous Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim was found murdered in her flat in Dubai. Dubai police managed to find the killer using clues (a shoe) left behind and security camera recordings. Today, the murderer and the tycoon who paid for the murder to be carried out are facing death by hanging in Egypt.

It seems incredible that the legendary Mossad could have committed so many lapses in a single operation. Of courses, this is not to say that Mossad hasn’t made blunders in the past, despite the halo it carries. In 1954, Operation Susannah, also called the Lavlon Affair, went disastrously wrong. Israeli agents were meant to bomb American, British and Egyptian targets in Egypt in order to put the blame on Muslim Brotherhood and local communists and cause the West to lose faith in Egypt’s Nasser. The agents were caught. One committed suicide in prison, two were hanged and four got long prison sentences. After 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Mossad hunted down the killers one by one as shown in the movie Munich (minus the melodrama). By mistake, in July 1973, Mossad agents killed a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway mistaking him for Ali Hassan Salameh, one of Yassir Arafat’s aides. To make matters worse, Mossad’s agents were caught and jailed in Norway. A few months later, Egypt and Syria initiated the Yom Kippur war which caught Israeli security services napping. In September 1997, Mossad agents carrying Canadian passports got captured in Amman after they tried and failed to kill Khaled Meshal a Hamas leader. Posing as Canadian tourists, Mossad’s agents injected poison into Mashaal's ear. After the agents were apprehended, an outraged King Hussein let them go in return for an antidote which saved Mashaal's life.

Even the usually pro-Israel Wall Street Journal concedes that Al-Mabhouh’s assassination, though ‘perfectly framed’, was an error of judgement, with the cost outweighing the benefits.
This incident has caused Haaretz, one of the most sensible voices that emanate from Israel, to call for greater supervision of Mossad. For the rank and file Israeli on the street, this is a victory to be celebrated and Mossad has become even more popular.

However, the world is changing rapidly. Israel is no longer seen as a David fighting the Arab Goliath. From building settlements in the West Bank to showing total unwillingness to negotiate, Israel has been making it more and more difficult for its friends and allies to support its actions. Al-Mabhouh’s ‘public’ assassination has only made it even more so.